Writing with Evernote


I’ve written before about being a big fan of Scrivener. As writing software goes, especially for long projects such as novels, it takes some beating.

Currently, for me, there’s one fly in the Scrivener ointment – the lack of an iPad version. Although I don’t want to write entire projects on my iPad, when I’m out and about without my laptop I do want to write, make notes, add to my research, edit and review. (In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be just on my iPad either – sometimes I only have my iPhone with me.)

This got me thinking about what I really need from writing software – and setting aside the fact that I’ll later need to have the manuscript reviewed, edited and proofed by someone else. If it needs to be exported into Word at some point, so be it. (I’m not allergic to Word; I use it daily for copywriting. This makes sense since it’s what my clients and my proofreader use. But I find that it’s next to hopeless for long documents. Why? It forces you to work and think in a linear way. It has no mechanism to easily reshuffle chapters and scenes. And, the bigger your document, the slower it gets. I could go on…)

I decided that, when it boils down to it, a writer needs surprisingly little of the word processing power. Here’s my personal bottom line:

  • Non-linear document structure – a way to break the project down into manageable chunks which can be easily reorganised.
  • Word count.
  • Basic formatting (bold, italic).
  • Easy and robust synchronisation with other devices – computers, tablets and phones.
  • The ability to incorporate research, including images, video and audio – plus links to Web pages.

That’s about all I need. Sure, there are lots of things I’d really like – but I’m trying to identify my most needed word processing elements.

This led me to an interesting conclusion. Most writing software just doesn’t suit my needs or workflow. Google Docs, Word and Pages may be the most-used writing software, but they’re the first to be struck off my list – since they’re linear and can’t readily incorporate research into the same document.

Good old Scrivener does everything I need (and more) but document replication between different devices relies (currently) on clunky workarounds using Dropbox to transfer files and then using an entirely different editing application on the iPad. It works, but it isn’t pretty.

There is one contender, though. It’s a surprising one: Evernote.

I’ve been using Evernote for ages – for its intended purpose, to take notes. It’s very useful – there are versions for PC, OS X and iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, BlackBerry and even WebOS. Not enough? Well – perhaps you work on Linux occasionally. In that case, there’s a Web interface to fall back on. Everything you type gets replicated automatically to the cloud and is quickly available on any other device. It’s built for a multi-device world – and one where your data can live anywhere.

This is powerful stuff. You can work on your laptop – and then go review on your iPad. Got ten minutes to kill? Review your manuscript on your phone. Stuck somewhere where there’s no Mac? Fire up a Windows or Linux PC and just login to your Evernote account. You can work online or offline – and replicate when you can connect to the Internet.

Editing the same document on different platforms, with Evernote

Evernote for OS X, Windows, iPad and iPhone – all in sync

So, that’s replication taken care of very neatly. What about non-linear document structure?

Evernote can handle this, but it’s not quite a hit clear out of the ballpark. Evernote breaks things down into shorter documents, true, but it doesn’t give a lot of control over how these are organised. Within Evernote, you create ‘notebooks’ – which then contain individual ‘notes’. So, these could either be the projects and chapters, or chapters and scenes, depending on how you work. It’s adequate – although nowhere near as functional as either Scrivener or Storyist (with their visual corkboards) but way better than Word.

Currently, there isn’t a live word count in all versions of Evernote, but they’re working on it. There isn’t any word count in the iOS version, although there is in the Windows and OS X apps. This isn’t ideal, but it’s workable.

Basic formatting is present and correct – there’s not much, but there’s everything you need: bold, italic, underline, paragraph indents, strikethrough and bullets.

Incorporating research and notes is part of what Evernote ‘just does’. Evernote documents can incorporate video, images and audio. You just fire up the camera or microphone on your iPad or Mac and that’s it – take photos or make audio notes right from within Evernote. You can also drag and drop images or add website URLs.

Again, Scrivener’s ability to incorporate research wins because of its organisational finesse – but there’s more than enough here to get by. And anything you add on one device automatically appears on your others. Evernote even has a widget for your browser – to make it easy to clip Web pages straight into your notebooks without even launching Evernote itself.

Adding rich media does become an issue – once you’re incorporating lots of images, audio and video into your notebooks, you’ll quickly move beyond the space that’s offered by a free Evernote account. But you can upgrade to a premium account for £4 a month, so you’re hardly being stiffed.

There are lots of compromises. Word and Pages run rings around Evernote in terms of layout ability. Scrivener and Storyist are built with the writer in mind and have lots of features to help manage large projects. Evernote is more workmanlike than slick – and at some point you will have to get your creative gem out of Evernote and into a file format your editor or proofreader uses. I’ve found that you do need to check over exported text for formatting errors or special characters that aren’t properly converted.

But it’s the workflow and replication where Evernote shines. It just works. You edit on one device, pick up another and carry on where you left off. It’s liberating. It makes switching between Mac and iPad (or PC and Android tablet) as simple as it gets.

There’s another advantage. Right now, I’m an Apple user – but that might not last forever. So knowing that I can move to another platform – or even just use a different one temporarily – is a bonus.

For novel-writing, I’m pretty tied to Scrivener for a multitude of reasons – and the team behind Scrivener is thankfully working on an iPad version, though that’s some way off. Scrivener for Mac and iPad, with easy file synchronisation – perhaps via iCloud – would be ideal. But for other projects, I’m very tempted by Evernote’s workflow.

About Peter Labrow

Peter Labrow has worked as a copywriter, writing non-fiction, for around twenty years. His output includes copy for websites and brochures; for around a decade he wrote a regular column for IT Training magazine. He has published one non-fiction book about learning within the corporate environment. The Well, Peter’s first novel, is available on Kindle and in print from Amazon. View all posts by Peter Labrow

4 responses to “Writing with Evernote

  • Rob

    Indeed – I use it a for notes but find Evernote really useful as a resesrch aid – I use it for collecting my thoughts on news stories, publicity themes, industry events, et al – something I do a lot of. In the past I’d do all this in a collection of bookmarks and apps, notes, word docs, etc – all over the place. In Evernote i can quickly post a note from the browser on any device, note my thoughts and review them weeks later when I actually need the info in an organised way from any device – my research has become much more usable – I’m more easily able to process it into my work. Wouldn’t be without it.

  • the happy horror writer

    I have only ever heard positive things about Evernote. When I write fiction I use Word, but when I write blog posts or book reviews, I use OneNote. I like the way I can organize related groups of information in OneNote, as well as the fact that I don’t have to necessarily write in one large, linear chunk on any given page.

    -aniko

  • Peter Labrow

    I think OneNote is one of the few pieces of software I’ve missed since moving from PC to Mac several years ago. Evernote isn’t anywhere near as functional, but then for me it scores because of how available it makes your notes/writing.

  • lissthomas3152

    I wish there was a sync between Scrivener and Evernote. I just started using Evernote and love, love, love it for my research and marketing. Using PC version of Scrivener so can’t sync. :o(

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